Serenade to Spring with George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams


During the summer months, I anticipate I’ll be offline more than on. For the moment, here are photographs of Innisfree Garden taken May 22, 2015, and music by George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

George Butterworth (1885-1916) is represented on the listening list by Two English Idylls (with grateful thanks to Bert Carter at the Great Composers Appreciation Society for making us aware of these lovely works).

From 1900 to the later 1920s, there was a concerted effort by composers and musicologists headed by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp to preserve the unique ‘traditional’ music of England which had been part of an unwritten oral tradition passed down between generations of singers and families. . . . After meeting Ralph Vaughan Williams at Oxford, George [Butterworth] became a keen collector of these folk songs, joining the Folk-Song Society in 1906 and eventually collecting more than 450 items including songs, dance tunes and dances . . . .

George was particularly keen on traditional English folk dances, and he became a founder member of the English Folk Dance Society in 1911. He was part of a team that demonstrated these dances around the country . . . . [citation]

Butterworth was killed in the Battle of the Somme on August 5, 1916.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) is represented on the listening list by Serenade to Music.

Early in 1938 Henry Wood asked Ralph Vaughan Williams . . . to compose a piece that would be performed on October 5 at a concert celebrating Wood’s golden jubilee as a conductor. Happy to oblige, Vaughan Williams asked if he had in mind a poet whose words would be appropriate. Wood gave him free rein, saying the words should not be specifically an ode to himself but suitable for many an occasion. He amplified in a telephone call that he wanted something for sixteen solo singers—all associates from his long career—and Vaughan Williams settled on a text he had always wanted to set—the scene in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Act V, Scene 1) when lovers Jessica and Lorenzo discuss music by the light of the moon as they await Portia’s return from Venice.

The gala performance . . . took place at the Royal Albert Hall with the sixteen singers . . . [and] contingents from the BBC Symphony, London Symphony, London Philharmonic and Queen’s Hall Orchestra all conducted by Wood. Rachmaninoff, who had performed his Second Piano Concerto on the first half [of the program], later wrote a letter that Wood shared with Vaughan Williams, saying that he had never before been so moved by a piece of music as by the Serenade. [citation]


Listening List

The inspiration for this listening list came about on listening to the Great Composers Appreciation Society selections for this month, on the theme of “Folk Music in the Concert Hall.” Our main selections for the month, once again ably chosen by our helmsman, Brian Long, include Zoltan Kodaly: Concerto for Orchestra; Ralph Vaughan Williams: Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus”; Leos Janacek: Taras Bulba; and Bela Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste.

On Spotify: Butterworth, Two English Idylls (1911) (London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Boult), and Vaughan Williams, Serenade to Music (1938) (While not entirely clear from the available information, it appears that Serenade to Music is performed in the original version for 16 soloists and orchestra by Felicity Lott, Lisa Milne, Rosa Mannion, Yvonne Kenny, Ann Murray, Diana Montague, Della Jones, Catherine Wyn Rogers, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, John Mark Ainsley, Toby Spence, Timothy Robinson, Stephen Roberts, Christopher Maltman, Michael George, Robert Lloyd, Duncan Riddell, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Roger Norrington. [citation; see #36 on the list]

On YouTube:

Butterworth, Two English Idylls (1911)

Vaughan Williams, Serenade to Music (1938)

Text for Serenade to Music:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive –
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak’d. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

(passages for chorus in italics) [citation]

Bonus Track: Film footage of Butterworth and others demonstrating various folk dances in full morris gear. (To see Butterworth dancing in the film, go to 1:00 and 3:24. Also, watch closely at around 3:54. The “sound track” is not, unfortunately, the music to which Butterworth and the others are dancing.)


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Credits: All quotations may be found at the sources linked in the post. As always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, the photographs, of Innisfree Garden, May 22, 2015, are mine.

Decoration Day According to Charles Ives

A Rainy Day in Camp (Winslow Homer, 1871)

A Rainy Day in Camp (Winslow Homer, 1871)

Decoration Day is a masterpiece, with an ending that is the loneliest and one of the most touching I know of.
attributed to Igor Stravinsky

Charles Ives wrote of his piece Decoration Day, the second of the four pieces included in his A Symphony: New England Holidays, that it “started as a brass band overture, but never got very far that way.” [John Kirkpatrick, ed., Charles E. Ives, Memos 101] Continue reading

“Less Is More” with Telemann, Debussy, Kodály, Anzoletti, Prokofiev, Berio, and . . .

1IMG_6714_edited-1The Great Composers Appreciation Society has been listening to music on the theme of “Less Is More” this month (4/15-5/14/15). The main selections for the month, chosen with typical perspicacity by our helmsman, Brian Long, include:

J. S Bach: Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1009 (1720?)  (More information here.)

Joseph Haydn: Symphony No.45 in F-sharp minor, Hob.I:45 (“Farewell”) (1772)  (More information here.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Duo for violin & viola No. 1 in G major, K. 423 (1783) (More information here.)

Claude Debussy: Syrinx (1913) (See below for more information.)

Edgar Varèse: Density 21.5 (1936, rev. 1946)  (More information here.)

Anton Webern: 5 pieces for orchestra op. 10 (1913)  (More information here.)

Benjamin Britten: Cello Suite No. 3, op. 87 (1971)  (More information here.)

Luciano Berio: Sequenzas 3 (for voice, 1965) and 5 (for trombone, 1966) (See below for more information.) Continue reading

Kyle Gann’s Transcendental Sonnets


and what if they eat clouds, and drink wind, they have not been without service to the race of man
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Kyle Gann’s Transcendental Sonnets are settings of sonnets by the Transcendentalist poet Jones Very (1813-1880). Jones Very’s story is one of possible madness and a short, ecstatic period in which he wrote what are regarded as the best of his poems. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in reviewing a book of Very’s poems, wrote of him:

The author, plainly a man of a pure and kindly temper, casts himself into the state of the high and transcendental obedience to the inward Spirit. He has apparently made up his mind to follow all its leadings, though he should be taxed with absurdity or even with insanity. In this enthusiasm he writes most of these verses, which rather flow through him than from him. Continue reading

Absolute Music, Absolute Dance

Balanchine Stravinsky NYCB 150429 IMG_1031_edited-1The composer creates time, and we have to dance to it.
George Balanchine

I haven’t been to the ballet “proper” in decades. I think the last time I went to the New York City Ballet wasn’t so very long after George Balanchine had died. This week, while down in New York City, I spotted that the New York City Ballet had a Balanchine Festival going on. For the one I could get to, the music was all Stravinsky (Apollo, Agon, Duo Concertant, and Symphony in Three Movements). Continue reading